We’re up early, before sunrise, for a long exciting day, so be prepared for a long post! After a quick breakfast we packed for our overnight trip and drove out at 7:30am to catch a boat at 9:30am. We are headed for Manapouri, a tiny town on Manapouri Lake, the second deepest, and some say the most beautiful, lake in NZ. It is part of the eastern edge of Fiordland National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Our trip will take us deep into Fiordland on a cruise through Doubtful Sound, one of the largest of the many fiords with 3 main arms cutting into the rugged mountainous coast of southwest NZ. We met our guides and boarded a lake ferry to take us 45 minutes to the far end of the lake.
We disembarked the ferry at the dock for the West Arm Visitor Centre and the Manapouri Hydropower Station (not open to the public). The Visitor Centre provides bathrooms and a few small exhibits about the cultural, geological and natural history of the area, but definitely not enough about the Hydropower Station that kicked off the biggest environmental protest in NZ and is regarded as a major milestone in the history of NZ’s environmental protection! The 1959 proposal to drill a steep tunnel down through the mountains from higher, freshwater Lake Manapouri to lower, seawater Doubtful sound while raising the lake’s level by 98 feet, effectively wiping out the town of Manapouri and despoiling the natural beauty around the lake, was vehemently protested by the population of NZ for years! The campaign eventually resulted in the election of a pro-environment government that made good on it’s promises and established the Guardians of Lake Manapouri in 1973. The fact that most of the power generated would be directed to an aluminum smelter in Bluff may have influenced some people, and ironically I just read that the smelter will be shut down at the end of 2024. The Hydropower station became fully operational in 1972, making it only 52 years of power generation for the smelter. I wonder if the power will be used for something else, or will the power station be closed too?
At the Visitor Centre we met our second guide who directed us to a comfortable van we 7 guests piled into for the 40 minute drive over Wilmot Pass. As we traveled our guide regaled us with stories and history, including some of the above information about the Hydroelectric Power Station. History about Wilmot Pass, especially that it’s 20km (about 12.5 miles) is the most expensive portion of roadwork in the history of NZ, and yet remains unpaved, was intriguing!
We descended to Deep Cove, a tiny harbor with fishing boats and tourist cruise boats docked, and until the Wilmot Pass road was built in the mid 1960’s was only accessible by boat or float plane or hiking a track over the pass! A small environmental school, Deep Cove Outdoor Education Trust that conducts outdoor school for NZ school kids has a few staff that stay part year, otherwise the population of fishermen and tourists is transient. We boarded our cruise boat, TutokoII, with Fiordland Expeditions, for our overnight cruise deep into the heart of Fiordland!
The boat can accommodate 12 guests and we had only 7, with 3 crew, the skipper Dave, the mate Fraser and the chef Arturo, who almost immediately popped a couple bottles of bubbly to start our trip!
We motored further along, mesmerized by the landscape and getting to know our fellow passengers. The skipper gave us history and anecdotes about the area and pointed out landscape features and prominent waterfalls. The time passed slowly it seemed, immersed in the beauty, and all too quickly a delicious lunch was spread of a stroganoff (or curry they call it here), a rich brown gravy with chunks of lobster poured over a bowl of pasta! After lunch the skipper motored us closer to the cliffs to get a good look at a waterfall, and of course gave us at the bow, gathered for a ‘group picture’ instigated by the mate, a good shower!
We continued along the main arm of Doubtful Sound getting closer to it’s outlet to the Tasman Sea. As the opening came closer, the waves became more numerous and the roll more noticeable. The mate advised us that if we had motion sickness medicine we should take it now, but no one seemed phased by it, including me surprisingly!
From the Galley came the aroma of fresh baked muffins as we motored to a small protected bay to pull up a lobster trap. It held 5 ‘crayfish’ as they call them here, actually rock lobster, different from our familiar ‘Maine lobster’ in that they have no large claws. We kept the 4 biggest.
We were then served afternoon tea with the delicious muffins and other pastries.
We are allowed to bring our own beer, wine and liquor aboard and we brought our little ‘chilly bin’ (cooler) with some beers and a few bottles of wine! We cracked some beers for the next adventure; fishing! The mate and even the skipper participated with instructing us and baiting the hooks. We motored close to the cliffs to drop the heavy sinker till it hit bottom (it seemed a long way down!), then jerk it when you feel a nibble and haul up a fish!
Next we were fed high tea! A selection of meats and cheeses with pickles and olives to fortify us for the coming adventure; kayaking! We all got instructions and life vests fitted and one by one transferred into the kayaks as they were lowered from the top deck to the water surface. None of us opted to bring our cameras (or phones) for fear of losing them or soaking them so there is no record of the paddling along the rock face, the entrance to a little rock alcove with a waterfall way back out of sight, the small pebbly beach where one guest actually pulled onto and waded into the water, the point we rounded to see another tourist cruise boat with the passengers taking pictures of us, like we were part of the scenery! We paddled on around the cruise boat and along the cliff face hoping to get to the sandy beach the skipper told us was up ahead, but most of us ran out of energy and upper arm strength and began returning to the mothership!
Back on board we relaxed in the sun and conversed with the other guests when one pointed and said ‘Dolphins’! Soon we all spotted the dolphins in the distance, jumping and ‘porpoising’. The dolphins seemed to spot us too and actually began swimming towards us! As we motored, a few individual dolphins positioned themselves at the bow and ‘surfed’ the bow stream! The skipper informed us that this is a pod of about 70 resident Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins, the southernmost population of this species in the world!
After that excitement we were invited to begin our 4 course gourmet dinner as we slowly motored deeper into the interior of the adjacent connected Thompson Sound.
We were all very satisfied with our meal and relaxed and continued sightseeing as the chef cleaned the galley and we motored towards our berth for the coming night.
But before nightfall we were challenged by the crew (who, by the way, didn’t participate) to jump from the top deck into the cold deep water of the fiord! Several, actually 6 of the 7 guests took on some part of the challenge, I being the only sane one who thinks sailors should stay dry!
The plunge revived Robert and he and I were the last guests to retire after the mate showed us the Southern Cross in the nearly cloudless sky, an unusual event since 2 out of 3 days it’s raining here!